What you will not find in this post is an attempt to make sense of Westworld’s convoluted fourth season. Who is a robot? Who is not? Who is a replicant (a biological duplication)? Is there a difference between robots and replicants? Can a human still be a human if they are clearly a replicant? And what happened after the destruction of the Laplacian super-computer in the third season? Why did the revolution not result in a liberated and democratic society? To be honest, I have no idea what season four of Westworld is about, and it seems I’m not special in this regard. The purpose of this post is to examine the show’s representation of life in a big, post-revolution, post-fossil fuel city—and why it is miserable.

By all appearances, the people in Westworld’s future live in what can only be described as an urbanist paradise. There is density, public transportation, and street after street dominated by pedestrians. People are almost always walking in this city, which is a version of New York City that, in 2060 or thereabouts, was combined with the financial center of the near future, Shanghai, and the capitol of Arab capitalism, Dubai. And if one of the characters needs to go somewhere outside the city, they catch a driverless electric vehicle. Fossil fuels are extinct in this world. The air is clean. People look healthier. There’s no homelessness or police. And yet, everyone seems depressed or lost or longing for something “more than this”—the really Happy City, as the Vancouver urbanist Charles Montgomery called it in 2013. How do we explain this result? Why is urbanism one of season four’s villains?

The obvious (and maybe only) answer is that the car city is familiar to most viewers. This means that despite its traffic jams, explosive road rages, deadly crashes, and pollution, the car city still has the advantage of feeling like home. The urbanist world, which is better planned, safer, and far more social and friendly to small businesses, is nevertheless as alien to our times and culture as Mars, and as disorienting as the severe logic of a robot.

The creators of Westworld apparently wanted their mostly American audience to feel uneasy about a city that, as it turns out, has at the core of its design the control rather than liberation of people. Those in power can do something to pedestrians our mayors can’t do with cars: make them stop, stand still, go nowhere. And so the known unhappiness of a fossil-fuel city becomes its opposite in the context of the unknown electrical city; indeed, this is the city and society that the Democrats hope to one day realize with the Inflation Reduction Act, passed Sunday, July 7.

Furthermore, Westworld’s treatment of urbanist values should not be separated from the way Hollywood has, in general, represented modernist architecture, a design movement that has its roots in the socialist feeling and program. The critic and filmmaker Thom Andersen impressively made this point in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. There is, he argues, a long history of Hollywood villains residing in mid-century modernist spaces. Good people live in the familiar, the standard (yet often mass-produced) single-family home; bad people must live in what can clearly be registered as unfamiliar, a structure designed by the unfeeling proponents and promoters of a minimalism codified in the 1920s by Bauhaus but never universalized as, say, the bungalow. 

One of the greatest cultural theorists of our times, Kodwo Eshun, writes:

For Andersen, L.A. Confidential epitomises the way in which Hollywood systematically ‘denigrates’ the modernist residential architecture of Los Angeles; Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House, which can be historically located ‘the first great manifestation of the International Style’ in Southern California which functioned as a socialist salon throughout the 1930s, is travestied as the palatial property of a porn tycoon by Hanson, who actually claimed a personal sympathy with mid century-modernism.

I understand something very bad is about to happen next week to the unhappy urbanist city in Westworld. This much I know. (The show also places villains in modernist spaces—minimal, speckless, cold, clinical.) But the damage is already done. The fourth season has represented something as wonderful as walkability, café culture, social welfare, and the real achievement of Vision Zero as nothing but a world that deserves deletion.